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Cuneiform tablets: backstory

by Dr. Naraelle Hohensee
Cuneiform tablet, from Anatolia, c. 1900 B.C.E., clay, 4.5 x 4.8 cm (LACMA)
Cuneiform tablets are among the most plentiful types of ancient artifacts in the world: over half a million are thought to be held in museum collections, and thousands, or perhaps millions, more have yet to be excavated. These artifacts are a rich part of global heritage, allowing researchers to learn vital information about the societies that produced them. Such information is even more valuable when objects are properly excavated, with documented findspots that allow experts to analyze not just their content, but their physical and cultural context.
With the escalation of conflict in the Middle East, opportunities for the looting and illegal sale of objects like these have greatly increased. Private dealers, as well as militant groups like ISIS, are benefitting from the lack of security in countries like Iraq, where it is relatively easy to find and remove archaeologically-significant objects and sell them on the black market.
However, such sales are not possible without buyers to drive demand. A prominent example of this is the recent case brought against the Green family, the owners of the Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby chain of retail stores. In 2010 and 2011, U.S. Customs and Border Control intercepted several packages addressed to the company. They were marked as “tile samples” and documented as coming from Turkey, but they actually contained over 5,500 cuneiform tablets and bricks, clay
, and cylinder seals thought to be from Iraq. The Green family—noted collectors of objects associated with the Biblical Middle East—had paid $1.6 million to a private dealer in exchange for the shipments. They agreed to forfeit the objects and pay a fine of $3 million to the Department of Justice.
The looting and illegal sale of important historical artifacts is detrimental to global cultural heritage for many reasons: it impedes research, divorces objects from their historical context, and robs at-risk communities of their rightful cultural property. The case of Hobby Lobby highlights the importance of policing such trafficking not just in the places where artifacts are found, but also in the places where they are collected and purchased.
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